By the time you write yourself a letter, and carefully fold the aerogramme, and lick the gluey edges so that they seal, and hand it to somebody else who will stick a stamp on it and put it in the post for you – by the time you’ve done all of those things, and then waited two or three days for the letter to arrive, you’ve nearly forgotten that you sent the letter at all; and thus, when you open your letterbox after coming home from work in the near-twilight of a mid-spring evening and see in there the exuberantly patterned aerogramme that was in your possession for ten or fifteen minutes the previous weekend, there is a moment in which you don’t recognise what it is that you’re looking at; you don’t remember having ever seen, let alone touched and marked and addressed, such an envelope before. Then, just an instant later, you remember, and the surprise and delight is so startling that you can’t help but grin. You can’t help but be happy.
It’s the same sensation, perhaps, that you would feel if you climbed the stairs of an extravagantly decorated 1920s theatre and found, near the bar, a small goat defecating discreetly on the carpet. You would probably have been to this theatre before, on an earlier Sunday, and so you would have expected to see a goat, or some other farmyard animal; or if not necessarily expected it, then certainly anticipated it as a possibility; yet seeing the animal, nonetheless, would be such a great joy and surprise that you would be unable to prevent yourself from crying out and touching the goat, stroking its hair, laying your fingers gingerly upon the horns growing out of its head.
There’s something endearingly old-fashioned about a goat. There’s something about a goat, the look of it, the sound of its bleating, the wiry yet surprisingly soft texture of its coat, that marks the animal somehow as ancient – and indeed the goat is one of the oldest of all domesticated animals. Starting with the Wild Goat or Bezoar (Capra aegagrus, still found throughout central Asia and the Middle East today), our Neolithic ancestors began herding goats millennia ago, and despite all the unfathomable time that has passed between then and now neither we nor the goats have changed very much.
The earliest evidence of the domestication of goats comes from two sites, in Turkey at the north of the valley of the Euphrates River; and in Kurdish Iran. Remains of Domestic Goats found in these two sites date back some ten thousand years; a few thousand years later the long stretch of land roughly between these two sites would become the cradle of modern civilisation: Mesopotamia. It was here that urbanisation began, with the emergence of arguably the world’s first cities; as populations grew and these early cities became larger and more frenetic with activity it became necessary to develop a method of keeping track of trades, finances, debts, and all the other daily negotiations of human society. People began making marks in clay to serve as aides memoire – people, in short, began writing.
In Mesopotamia, writing began as a means of keeping track of traded goods. Then as now, a great part of the economy was based on agriculture – and there must have been more than a few goats tabulated in those ancient rudimentary written words. Then and now goats must have been bought and sold by the hundred: the goat, wild or domestic, has always been a herd animal. This must have been one of the things that made it attractive to humans in the first place; and perhaps it’s not so fanciful to imagine that our ancient Mesopotamian ancestors recognised in herds of goats some kind of kinship: that animals such as goats group together to feel safer from tangible threats such as predators is not really so different from the way in which more abstract fears – loneliness; isolation; estrangement – lead people to seek out the company of each-other, particularly in cities.
Though we prize our individuality, we want nonetheless to feel that we are part of a community greater than ourselves. We live cheek-by-jowl with each-other; we cherish good neighbours; we start to feel strange when we haven’t communicated with anybody in a while. How excited must the originators of those first early written missives have been, to have created a new way to communicate to each-other previously incommunicable thoughts? We write because we wish, in some way, to share our perception of the world with our fellow humans – to ask if anybody experiences the world the same way we do. Though we too readily forget it now, we in the Western world have inherited from the ancient Mesopotamians a culture and a sense of community that is based in a fundamental way on the written word.
Yet the written word is useless if it is not read. It is the reading, the listening, the experiencing of writing by others – whether that writing is mercantile, practical, fanciful, or fictional – that gives the written word its purpose. Writing is about reaching out, grasping at comprehension across the otherwise unknowable boundary of another human’s individual consciousness; writing ensures that words and stories and experiences can survive beyond the fragile lives of their creators; writing creates communities, and through communities, comfort.
Every month just such a community – loose, shifting, growing, but always unified in spirit – gathers at the Thornbury Theatre, in Melbourne’s north. The Thornbury Theatre was once the Regent Theatre, a cinema opened on the 8th of August 1925. Now, after decades of dormancy except as a banquet hall, it hosts live events of all kinds, from music to wrestling. For the last two years it has also hosted Women of Letters, a literary event in a city full of them but one which almost immediately, and completely organically, acquired the kind of excitement and dedication that people only bestow upon things that they truly love.
If you live in Melbourne you probably know all about Women of Letters already; if you don’t, here are the basics: created and curated by Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire, at the end of each month the event draws together, before an invariably sold-out audience, a disparate group of five women – different women each time, though several have by now appeared more than once. These women will each have been asked to write a letter inspired by a particular theme; they then read the letter out. Anything beyond that is left to the writer’s discretion, and the letters range from the bawdy to the raw to the wry to the heartbreaking – usually all in one afternoon, frequently all in one letter. Between the reading of the letters and a brief question-and-answer session, the audience is provided with pens, postcards and aerogrammes, and invited to write a letter to somebody, to be posted by Marieke and Michaela.
That’s what happens in literal terms, but such a description gives no impression at all of what it is that keeps several hundred people coming back to the Thornbury Theatre every month, begging for tickets if necessary and turning up early to queue out onto the street. There’s a promise of a Sunday afternoon’s entertainment, of course – but entertainment can be found anywhere. What Women of Letters provides more than anything is a sense of belonging.
A male friend of mine asked me a couple of weeks ago if men were welcome. It’s true that the great majority of the audience is made up of women, but nobody who attends a Women of Letters event is made to feel out of place. It’s precisely this warmth and openness that brings people to Women of Letters. We’re all there to listen, and hearing women – hearing people – recount astonishingly frank and honest stories of their own lives galvanises us into the understanding that community, fellowship, a sense of shared experience, will always be the essential aspect of the experience of being human. We are social animals; we are the only animals on earth who create anything like a city: a space shared by millions of individuals with no genetic relationship with each-other, no base biological reason to put up with each-other.
We make our communities not just physically, but emotionally as well. Above all, emotionally. And in our better moments we try to reach out to others – to our fellow humans, and sometimes – though too rarely – to other animals caught up in the maelstrom of human life. Besides celebrating the art of letter-writing, Women of Letters was started expressly to support the work of Edgar’s Mission, an animal shelter outside Melbourne dedicated to providing sanctuary to animals from factory-farms. Factory-farming is the brutal end-point of domestication: a production line of animals bound in servitude to a life and death of the utmost cruelty and despair. From time to time one of the animals from Edgar’s Mission will be brought to Women of Letters, up the stairs to the upstairs entrance of the Thornbury Theatre, to remind everybody what it’s all about: to remind us all of the consequences and responsibilities of the thousands of years of domestication and animal use and abuse that have been at the heart of human life for longer than we can remember. From before we had writing; from before we had cities; from before, even, we had communities, we had animals in our lives. They are there still, every aspect of our life is abundant with them; in their own way they are part of our community – and as we talk to each-other, write to each-other, listen to each-other, we should make the effort to remember them, too. They have been with us for so long.
Image sourced from http://en.wikipedia.org